In terms of film production, the Middle East isn’t Hollywood.
Yet, even in a year that Egypt (home of the region’s most mature film industry) is preoccupied with revolution, 2011 witnessed the world premiere of far more Arab films than you will see released commercially in Arab cinemas in 2012.
A quick scan of 2011’s Doha-Tribeca, Abu Dhabi and Dubai film festivals – the most important in the region – reveals that 42 feature-length documentary and fiction films had their world and international premieres there. Most of these will not be projected outside film festivals and cine-clubs.
Lebanese filmmakers aren’t above this dreary fact of life. Of these 42 features, 12 were from Lebanon. This number excludes those films launched outside the region. Having premiered at Cannes, Locarno and Venice (and leavened with film festival awards), Danielle Arbid’s “Beirut Hotel”, Susan Youssef’s “Habibi Rasak Kharban” and Nadine Labaki’s “Wa Hallaq l’Wayn?” have found, or will find, international, if not regional, distribution.
Based on past precedent, however, most of this year’s new films will not receive a commercial run at either the national or regional level. This is a symptom of a globalized film distribution market that favors the American film industry over all others.
Earlier this month DIFF’s Dubai Film Market launched a new distribution award, designed to coax regional and international distributors to pick up titles from this region.
“If you talk to Arab filmmakers, distribution is the biggest issue in the region,” said Jane Williams, who set up DIFF’s Industry office in 2006 and is now the director of the Dubai Film Market. “It’s also about getting the films seen overseas. So this award is something we’ve been mulling over for a long time.
“We put it out there knowing that next year we’ll completely redesign the thing … It’s a first step. We know we’re not there yet but we’ve got really good feedback.”
DIFF’s award will see distributors who acquire two of DIFF’s Arab feature films and two of its Arab feature-length documentaries eligible for a $60,000 pot of cash. For each feature film acquired for distribution over two markets – regional and international – the distributor will receive $10,000 per feature film and $5,000 per documentary.
Eligible films must have an Arab director, run more than 59 minutes, and have been produced before Jan. 1, 2011. Films that have already acquired a distributor are ineligible.
Overseas distributors must ensure that the acquired film be released within a year of Dec. 14, 2011, in at least one commercial cinema, in a minimum of two cities. Middle East distributors must screen the film or documentary in at least two countries in the region. They must also commit that any award monies be used for the films’ prints and advertising (P&A) – technical expenses, media campaigns and publicity material.
Most of the Lebanese distributors contacted were unavailable to comment before this story went to press. Hania Mroue, the proprietor of Beirut’s Metropolis Cinema-Sofil and MC Distribution, is cautiously optimistic about the prospects for the DIFF initiative.
“This is a very good initiative but it has two problems,” she said. “First, $5,000 is very little money. With $5,000, you have to find a second distributor who’s willing to distribute the film for $2,500. That’s not going to work, but it’s seems they may be willing to reconsider this requirement.
“Second, releasing documentaries elsewhere is a problem. Virtually no exhibitors in this region, outside Metropolis, screen documentaries. Another consideration is the quality of the selected films that they want to see distributed. It may sometimes be that the films selected for promotion simply aren’t strong enough to be exhibited.”
Pascal Diot, the manager of DIFF’s Filmmart (the film-acquisition side of Dubai’s Film Market) and the principal architect of the distribution prize, is enthusiastic about the prospects, saying the Filmmart hosted a large number of delegates interested in regional titles.
“The industry cine-tech (where distributors and sales agents watch new releases and contact filmmakers electronically) was fully booked from noon to 5 p.m. every day, that’s 1,400 screenings,” Diot said. “And we have a large number of emails directly to the owners or the sales agents.”
Diot says the distribution prize was devised after consultation with the region’s distributors.
“We spoke to several distributors before the launch … One of the important things is that it’s the market that is selecting: it’s not us. We want the market to select the films it wants to distribute,” he added.
“Distribution outside the Middle East is no problem because the criteria we’re using is that they release in at least one commercial cinema in at least two cities in their own territory. I have received interest – more than interest in fact, since distributors are going to sign in Germany, Norway, Canada and Korea,” Diot said.
“The problem is more in the region. Most of the distributors represent the whole region. So they have to release the film in at least two countries. For some – Front Row, Empire and so on – it’s not a problem because they’re dealing with the entire region.
“Our aim is to encourage and support distributors to buy and to have a real and concrete conversation with the exhibitors. The distributors will say it is the exhibitors (the cinemas) who are often the problem in this region.”
“Unlike Europe, local exhibitors are unaccustomed to this type of film because it’s not for a teenage audience. So you have to promote it differently. They have to learn that it’s over the long term that you find a faithful audience because as soon as they know that this theater is exhibiting art house movies, they will come.”
DIFF’s distribution initiative is one of the interesting developments to arise from the proliferation of Gulf film festivals. For a range of reasons – from an interest in cultivating the Arab world’s cinematic culture to an inter-festival rivalry to screen the work of the brightest young talent – Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha film festivals have selectively adopted the film funding and co-production market models of the major European festivals and adapted them to the needs of the region.
The best developed of these mechanisms is DIFF’s Dubai Film Market. Though the educational and film-funding mechanisms of the Doha Film Institute and ADFF do not themselves trace lineal descent to DIFF, these more-muscular funds are seen to be modeled on DIFF initiatives.
Regardless of their origins and development, the existence of these mechanisms means that conversations with Arab filmmakers are less likely to hinge exclusively on tales of talent stifled by lack of funding.
DIFF managing director Shivani Pandya considers the distribution award as an organic part of the festival’s mission.
“The distributors, as you know, are very commercially oriented. Their perspective is that they’re catering to what the audience wants. We have a slightly different understanding. In this festival we screen films from different parts of the world and we have lots of people come out. Can we create a platform where they can go to see these films year-round?”
The most obvious question about offering an award to distributors is that of how to police it to ensure that the funds actually get used for the intended purpose.
“We’re telling them – “Go ahead and do it, then show us what you’ve done and this money is yours,’” Pandya said. “So there is an understanding on their part that they need to have it in a certain number of screens. It’s an easy obligation because I think we all understand the problems they’ll face.”
“Whenever I’m asked about [local distribution of local films] I always think of South Korea,” said Diot.
“Ten years ago, South Korean cinematography almost didn’t exist. Then the state asked each exhibitor to dedicate at least 150 days per year to national cinema. Five or six years after, the share of Korean film was up 50 percent.
“I’ve also been working as a consultant for the Gulf Film Festival. Every day during that festival the cinemas are fully packed. So I do believe there is an audience here for Arab cinema. The only thing is that they have to give people the opportunity to see them.”
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